Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crossing Borders

So many songs about getting older refer to the world getting darker, growing colder:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder.
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older.”


"Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow."


“In only a moment we both will be old,
We won’t even notice the world turning cold.”

As a kid I didn’t understand that lyrical metaphor.

As I’ve grown older, it’s become all too evident.

The world really does seem to get colder with each passing year.

And though July 18 may have been the hottest day of 2011, I felt the cold winds of change blowing when I heard that Borders Books was going out of business.

I was lucky enough to have been there from the very beginning.

I grew up in Detroit, some thirty miles from Ann Arbor. Several relatives lived in A2 (as people around here call it) and, when I was a kid, I would sometimes spend a few days with an aunt who lived on the very same street as the University of Michigan football stadium. During my visits, she and I spent entire days going from one bookstore to another -- and back in the early seventies, Ann Arbor was filled to bursting with bookstores of every type: big ones, small ones; some specializing in counterculture books, feminist books, or the paranormal; some with miles of college textbooks, others no bigger than your living room and crammed with only crumbling, used paperbacks. In the midst of all this, Borders Books opened in 1971. I can’t say I have any special memories of those early years; it was just another stop on our list of local bookstores.

Borders didn’t make an impression on me until it moved to a larger, two-story location on State Street a few years later. I still remember how my pace would quicken as I got closer to the front entrance. I’d practically run up the stairs to see what was new in the children’s book department on the second floor. I could spend hours browsing in every section of the store, though: fiction, drama, science, history, art. I still own many books that I purchased there. And still have many memories of visiting that store on State Street. There was a wonderful summer Sunday when my friend Pat took me on a walking tour of the entire city, showing me all the places she hung out while attending U of M; during our stop at Borders I bought a copy of the then-brand-new SIXTEEN : SHORT STORIES BY OUTSTANDING WRITERS FOR YOUNG ADULTS, edited by Donald R. Gallo. Several years later I wrote a play that was produced by a small theatre in A2. One Saturday twilight, a couple hours before “show time,” I ran over to Borders and discovered a copy of Avi’s NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH in a new book display and it became an instant favorite. And for years and years, I had a tradition of driving up to Ann Arbor on New Year’s Eve Day and hitting all the bookstores --culminating with a long visit to Borders.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when Borders finally began to expand from their Ann Arbor store. One of the first new locations they opened was in Lathrup Village, Michigan, just a few miles from my home. Within a few years there were, literally, FOUR Borders bookstores less than fifteen minutes away. I practically lived in these stores. They opened early and closed late. At Christmas there would be stacks of books on the floor waist-high and check-out lines stretching from the front of the store nearly to the back wall. It did my heart good to be surrounded by so many other book lovers.

…But I also noticed something chilling. Borders had a habit of moving into areas that already had established independent bookstores across the street or just down the block…and within months of Borders’ arrival, these small bookshops -- often beloved neighborhood fixtures -- would post “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” signs. It was heartbreaking to see them go and I began to have mixed feelings about these big cookie-cutter superstores (and I’m including Barnes and Noble here) driving away unique mom-and-pop businesses that simply could not compete with Borders’ large selection, discount prices, and long hours.

Around this time, I stumbled across one of the few independent bookstores in my area that had been able to stay open, despite both a Borders and a B&N just a few miles away. Since then, I’ve done almost all my bookbuying from this store -- which specializes in handselling and calls you whenever a new book by a favorite author comes in. A place that saves up their old issues of Publishers Weekly for me to read. A place that shares advance reading copies of forthcoming books with me, knowing I’ll likely end up buying the hardcover anyway. A place where the owners love to talk about books and take great joy in sharing them with fellow readers.

Does this mean I turned against Borders completely? No, I still bought magazines there. And I was known to run in and buy a new bestseller from time to time. Before birthdays and Christmas, I’d sometimes drop by to pick up a dozen paperback mysteries as gifts for my father. I used to buy a lot of CDs and DVDs there. I also attended some Borders booksignings, forever grateful that I got to meet Jean Craighead George and Markus Zusak. And I can’t tell you how many evenings I’ve driven by a darkened strip mall and felt so good to see one lone store lighted up and teeming with life -- Borders providing a warm gathering place for readers late on a winter’s night.

And now I’m struck cold by the news of its closing, despite having been ambivalent about Borders’ big business mindset and takeover tactics. I have no idea what really went wrong. The bad economy? The encroachment of Amazon.com? The new technology of e-readers? Did the chain just get too unwieldy and “big for its britches”? Maybe someday someone will write a book about the downfall of Borders. How ironic that you won’t be able to buy this book at Borders, because within a few weeks the remaining 400 locations will be gone. Over 10,000 people -- presumably people who know and care about books -- will be unemployed. And now those darkened malls will be completely dark and empty.

It feels like we’re about to enter foreign territory.

We’re approaching a different kind of border.

Will we soon be living in a cold, sterile world where every book is ordered online? Or where we just press a button and the book is delivered immediately to an e-reader? It feels like we’re headed in that direction.

But I, for one, intend to fight it.

I’m going to keep patronizing independent bookstores and -- of course -- libraries. I want to hang on to those last few places where we can pick up books, sample stories, feel the pages under our fingertips, and share time and space and thoughts with like-minded people -- fellow book lovers -- in a world that grows colder by the day.


Anonymous said...

To me, it's poetic justice that Borders stores were put out of business by a bigger, slicker piranha - Amazon.com, which has already reached monopolistic proportions. My concern is the 10k unemployed - but Borders stores - m'ech.

Hard for me to get teary-eyed about Borders, having watched many independent neighborhood bookstores succumb to the onslaught of the big box stores years ago.

Linda said...

Peter, you took the words right out of my mouth. I like bookstores, and having one less to shop at makes the world a colder place. I've always found Borders to be friendlier than B&N as well.

As to the independent bookstores, I mourn them, too, but for some of us, the independents had gone belly-up long before Borders and B&N moved into town and the big-box stores were a godsend. There was a low point when I was living in Rhode Island where the ONLY bookstores in the area were the Waldenbooks at the malls (you had to go to Massachusetts to even find a BDalton), and the next-closest non-chain bookstore was in Taunton, MA.

One is always urged to patronize used bookstores, and I have never turned up my nose at one; however, I find them to be overloaded with romance novels and former bestsellers, neither of which I read. It's been a long time since I found a great old book, especially children's books like Lois Lenski's, at a used bookstore.

Laura Canon said...

I grew up in a town where Waldenbooks was it. (Later, when I was old enough to drive, I discovered used and a single small independent bookstore near the university.)
So for me Borders and B&N were fabulous places where you could browse for hours, sit and read and get almost any book in the world. I recognize that they had a destructive role as well but they brought me a lot of joy (and new books.)
As for the future, I can't imagine life without bookstores. It's one thing to want a book and order it...but browsing is such an integral part of finding new books. I can't even count the number of books I discovered simply because I liked "something about the cover." (I've often tried to analyze the psychology of what, exactly, and failed.)
My Borders survived the initial cut last year. I'll be sad to see it go. Not to mention having to sit through another 1000 articles/blogs about "why bookstores are dead."

Heather said...

I just stumbled on to your blog... I also live in the Detroit area. I too was struck by the irony of the the closing of Boarders. I grew up in Grand Rapids. We had a Schuler's Book Store that my parents rarely took me to. It was not until the 1990's when a Barnes & Noble came to town that I actually got a "big box store" book store. Until then we shopped at local book stores that specialized in second hand books. Now I rarely go to Barnes & Noble or Boarders. I usually go to thrift stores or small local stores like Another Look books in Taylor, Mi.

Anonymous said...

It is my vow to make most of my purchases at independent bookstores. We are lucky enough to have a small one in our little village, and another one just 6 miles away. There is a particularly good one about 30 miles away in the city in which I work. Now I won't say I never buy from Amazon, but I make a concerted effort to make thouse purchases DVDs, CDs or sundries. Sometimes the amazing discounts on books tempt me, but I know if I patronize the online stores my local coffee/book/meeting place with die. I can't have that on my conscience. ;)

Chris in NY